I had spent a full week off the bike, and I was afraid of what that would mean. In fact, the only ride I had done was a 20 kilometer loop with the son of my host. And that was without my bags and very fast–nothing like actual touring. Would my legs have gone soft that quickly? My best estimate for the day's ride was 100km and moderate hills. If I fallen out of shape at all, I would find out.
A bit of research turned up a campground that was open until early November. Located about 8km from the caves that I wanted to explore, it was perfect. I left early in the morning with a full stomach and a bike packed high with food. It felt good to be fully resupplied and back on tour.
In fact, everything felt quite good. The long morning stretch and warm meal. The rolling green hills spread under light fog. The cold air that bit at my fingertips and allowed me to stay bundled in a sweatshirt. The two water bottles each filled with a mixture of orange juice and water. By 11am, I had crushed nearly 50km. This included a 10km climb that reassured me of my strength. I felt good and strong through the whole thing and did not stop.
But that was just the morning. Around noon, it began to rain. I decided that I had to find a place to charge my camera since I would want it in the caves. The power adapter that I had borrowed from a friend did not work in many outlets, because most French outlets are recessed and it has a flat front. My first stop was at a bar where I planned to have a coffee and wait out the rain. Which had just started falling.
But the bar had no outlet that would work and it was the only thing in town, so I kept riding. The rain fell harder and I planned to stop in the next major town–one of only two between where I was and where I was going. But I realized when I got near that my route would skirt the town by a couple of kilometers and a steep hill. No matter, there was still the next town and it was still early.
And then I ran into a detour. I've found these to be particularly dispiriting in France. They are never well planned nor well marked. But the detour was just a few kilometers out of town, so I did not despair. Until several kilometers later when I realized I had been riding without a rest for a long time and that I was hungry and hot in my rain clothes and going directionally the wrong way. I tried for a long time to find a covered bench to sit and eat but found nothing.
Eventually I found a picnic table beneath the trees. It was not dry, but it was not soaked. The rain was still coming down, but slightly less beneath the branches. It would do. I ate a lot, and the food was good and felt good. I cut open half of a baguette and added tomato pesto, arugula, cheese, and sliced tomatoes. I read an email that I had been saving for a rest stop and then I stretched. Sometimes when things are a bit lonesome, I put on a short story podcast. Which now I did. It was a story by Raymond Carver. I love his writing, but it doesn't help to keep you from feeling lonesome.
Once I continued on and checked my map several times I realized where the detour was taking me. It was far out of the way and would later put me on a main route, full of the trucks that had been detoured. Instead I felt my way along some very small streets through one-chicken towns and back to where I needed to be. In the process, I had avoided the second larger village and with it any chance of charging my camera.
By the final 15 kilometers, I realized that my instincts were right and my feeling of enthusiasm that morning was wrong. A week off the bike had softened my legs, and I was dragging hard. I stopped and took off the hoody under my rain jacket and stretched and stopped the podcast and got ready for the final push.
I arrived at a very nice campsite and waited out the rain before hanging my hammock. I tried to charge my camera but could not and felt quite disappointed. I read for a long time before falling asleep.
At 7am the next morning I got out of the hammock and first thing went to the facilities block with the camera charger again. Stupidly. There was nothing going to be different, but sometimes you just have to go and do it anyway. Fiddling with the US to European adapter for the 25th time in five weeks, I finally realized that the prongs unscrew to extend. They can be used in any of the recessed outlets in France. I was too happy that my camera was charging to feel angry at myself for not realizing this before.
I ate well, the normal breakfast. Drank coffee and played guitar. And then I headed for the caves. The Gouffres de Padirac. Absolutely magical, the cave begins with a long staircase down a very deep chasm, open at the top.
At the bottom, the stairs descend against and under the chasm, away from the sunlight. After a long walk through a high narrow expanse of limestone, you arrive at a small dock. Three boats and their oarsmen wait to paddle you a kilometer along an underground river where the caverns open up again. At the other side are more and larger chasms with incredible stalactites and stalagmites. There are no cameras allowed after the section of cavern where you enter the boats. So you can not take any pictures like these:
It was still early in the day when I escaped the caves. I had planned to spend the next night at the same campsite and my pitch was still there. When I left, I asked if there was a place I could put my stuff so it would not be stolen. This is the second time I've asked this at a campground and the second time someone has looked at me like I'm nuts for asking. There is a place you can put it, but things are not stolen here. Is basically the idea.
And so anyway I had the rest of the afternoon. I rode 12km to Rocamadour. In terms of tourist destinations It is sort of the massif central's answer to the Mont St. Michel. It is a town built into a hillside with (surprise) a giant church at the top.
I went to the cliffside along the valley from the town with my lunch. I had a beer and wrote some postcards and ate a lot of food. It was very beautiful and the wind was coming through the valley but the wind was warm. After I had sat a good long time, I decided to head back to the campground.
On the way back I noticed the ticket office for another cave. Figuring that two caves and a town built into a hillside made for a good day, I stopped and bought a ticket. At the gift shop, I spoke to two French women for a long time about my trip and about San Francisco.
Once it was time for the tour, we descended to the grotto. It was small, and this time they were kind of serious about not taking any pictures. So I did not. There were cave paintings which looked mostly like someone had just smeared ash on the walls, but I took their word for the fact that they were ancient. The guide asked us which animal each one was and it was always impossible to tell. Except that I could tell the wolf right away. Whether ancient rust painted on a limestone wall or cyclist pushing across a nation, we can recognize others from the pack.
The tour was given entirely in French and lasted 40 minutes. In case you have now been misled into believing that my French has gotten good because I have talked so much about it, here is my transcription of the 40 minute guided tour:
Don't take pictures. Watch your head. These lights something. This is very old. Water makes this happen. Iron deposits. Over here, bath. Watch your head. Temperature doesn't change. Rain comes down, makes this. This was made my a root. Follow me. This is a horse. Legs, legs, head. That's right it's a deer. Legs, antlers. Watch your head, thank you.
The wind was coming in strong as I rode back to camp. And in fact it kept up this way all night and into the morning. The wind pushed hard in massive gusts against the rainfly of my hammock. Sometimes it was enough to swing me violently. The terrible sounds of the flapping material woke me many times. I had dreams of finding an open porch someplace and spending the rest of the night there. But they were dreams, which meant I was sleeping and that was good enough.